ST. PETERSBURG — The event could have been made for Luke Witkowski. The Lightning have a few fishermen on the team, but none as serious as Witkowski.
Jon Cooper launched Coop’s Catch for Kids, a fishing tournament to benefit pediatric cancer research, four years ago. Witkowski was the last player cut that year and didn’t make it to the event, which is held a couple of days before opening night.
On Tuesday, he showed up to Maximo Park ready for a morning on the water. Witkowski wasn’t giving any tips to his teammates though; they were competitors for the day.
“Usually it’s a golfing event, which is the opposite of my thing,” Witkowski said. “They say a bad day fishing beats a good day at work, but I’ve got a pretty good job, too.”
It turned out to be a better day for a boat ride than for fishing with the winds chasing away the fish. Cooper joked that he was just happy to have clear skies after dealing with the red tide and a hurricane in previous years.
“It’s a day I look forward to all year,” Cooper said. “We might not get skunked today, that’s what I’m hoping.”
The wind didn’t keep Carter Verhaeghe, who had only been fishing a few times, from catching a 36-inch snook, the largest individual fish of the day. Nor did it hold back Marilyn Healy from Tampa General Hospital, who won the grand slam with a 28.5-inch snook, 16-inch trout and 15-inch redfish.
The event was a success even before the boats left the launch. Sarah Costello, Lightning Foundation and community events manager, estimated this year’s event brought in almost $200,000, bringing the four-year total to about $500,000. The proceeds all go to the V Foundation, founded by basketball analyst Dick Vitale to benefit pediatric cancer research and patient services.
Lightning players contributed $10,000, which general manager Julien BriseBois matched, then Pat Maroon added another $2,500. Team owner Jeff Vinik matched Heritage Insurance, the event’s titular sponsor with $25,000.
“It means something special to me,” Cooper said. “The guys enjoy giving back. They’re a super group of guys. But also, training camp’s been a grind. I think this is a little bit of an exhale.”
Cooper started the event inspired by Tony Colton. He was a part of the first event but passed away in 2017 after a seven-year battle with cancer.
“He’s a big part of this,” Cooper said. “The group of people that came together to raise money for pediatric cancer, it just touches your heart to see that so many people care.”
Kevin Shattenkirk, a newly-signed defenseman, has participated in many fundraisers with the Rangers and Blues and hosts a Kan-Jam event in New York, but this was his first with the Lightning.
He enjoyed the different take with a fishing tournament, comparing it to a golf tournament that might keep away people who don’t know how to play. Shattenkirk fishes maybe once a year, when someone takes him out and can tell him what to do, maybe untangle the line. A day of fishing doesn’t require expertise.
After all, the Lightning’s most expert angler wasn’t the one who took home the trophy. Witkowski did, however, bring home a mangrove snapper for dinner.